Once a Whipping Boy, Cop Watchdog Now Gets More Love

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Late last year, Orange County supervisors told Steve Connelly he had six months to persuade them that the Office of Independent Review wasn’t a waste of money.

If he failed, Connelly and his small office, which is tasked with keeping watch over the Sheriff’s Department, would face the budget ax.

This week, Connelly won a 4-1 vote from supervisors with a majority noting that he has done a better job of letting them know what he does.

Formed in 2008 after the jail beating death of John Chamberlain, the office acts as an internal risk management review agency for the Sheriff’s Department. It’s also intended to offer an independent set of eyes for internal investigations.

Yet since it’s formation, the office has struggled to meet the expectations of supervisors. It’s been confused for a civilian review commission for the Sheriff’s Department, with supervisors often wanting Connelly to have a more public role. They’ve also often commented that Connelly should issue more reports like his counterpart in Los Angeles County.

The result has been a steady confusion over Connelly’s role and steady threats from supervisors that they would defund his office.

Like many deliberations over the office, called “OIR,” this week’s budget session began with county Supervisor Shawn Nelson noting that he has concerns because Connelly’s role seems a bit squishy.

“I don’t have any objective ability to measure what this office does,” Nelson said. “It’s time to cut bait.”

Yet this time, when Nelson looked to other supervisors, instead of a second to his motion he found solid support for Connelly.

“I have been critical of the department over the last two years in terms of not receiving reports,” said Supervisor Pat Bates. “But I think in this past year, the reporting format has greatly improved.”

Bates went on to say that Connelly “has done a good job on translating for us on what the job is doing and how they are interfacing with the department on these incidents.”

The office also received public support from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who said the position is worth the cost because it makes her department more transparent.

“There’s always that doubt: Are you protecting your own?” she said. The overall community feels a great sense of assurance that internal investigations are being reviewed, she added.

Hutchens said she interacts with Connelly on a weekly basis, and he brings back important intelligence on internal operations. While Hutchens stands by her department, she noted that underlings often filter things information sent to top officials.

She said Connelly’s role helps ensure there’s a good sense of what’s happening on the ground.

Supervisor Bill Campbell gave Connelly credit for a good review of two recent incidents inside the Probation Department.

And Supevisor Janet Nguyen also offered general support for the office.

Chairman John Moorlach, who has become Hutchens’ and Connelly’s strongest supporter on the board, noted there was more than 30 lawsuits against the department when he arrived five years ago.

“Since the Office of Independent Review and the cooperation from the sheriff, I think our headline risk has reduced dramatically,” Moorlach said.

Nelson remained unconvinced, saying there is no clear accounting of how OIR has saved the county money.

“Hand me the one report that says I prevented this from happening,” Nelson said. “You can’t give me that report. How do you manage that which you cannot quantify?”

Indeed, while supervisors pointed to a number of general situations in which Connelly has been helpful, the public has no way to measure what the office does, because it has never issued a public report.

And that still annoys Nelson, who was the lone dissenter on a 4-1 vote, noting that Connelly should find a way to let taxpayers know what he does.

“I want to know what specifically they are getting for their money,” Nelson said.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana.

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